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It Began With Complaints About A Diet (and morphed into so much more)

Emily Gellis, a millennial fashion Instagram influencer, began to accrue a massive following this past summer. Many hit the “Follow” button after hearing her on popular podcasts, including Juicy Scoop with Heather McDonald. Gellis claimed to have received thousands of direct messages via Instagram, both anonymous and with names attached (“ON THE RECORD”), about adverse […]

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More Than Just a Diet War

Emily Gellis, a millennial fashion Instagram influencer, began to accrue a massive following this past summer. Many hit the “Follow” button after hearing her on popular podcasts, including Juicy Scoop with Heather McDonald. Gellis claimed to have received thousands of direct messages via Instagram, both anonymous and with names attached (“ON THE RECORD”), about adverse reactions to the popular, high fiber “F Factor” diet. Alarmed by the volume of complaints pouring in about women seemingly suffering from a diet, she explained, Gellis decided to deviate from her usual clothing and accessories try-ons and swipe-ups and share those messages in her Instagram stories. From that point on, an “accidental activist,” as the more neutral or positive onlookers have referred to her, was born.

Nutritionists and registered dieticians began to tune in (with many lay people) and explore whether F Factor’s powders contained ingredients incompatible with some people’s digestive systems (i.e. There was speculation at one point about too much guar gum in the powder, and also at one point, ALLEGEDLY, trace amounts of metal). However, F Factor has brand ambassadors/Instagram influencers who swear by the company’s products in a devoted, cult-like manner and seem to revere the company’s founder, Tanya Zuckerbrot, RD, respecting her credentials, expertise, and a book she wrote about the diet. They sing the praises of the products and the diet overall.

These influencers use their PR prowess and following to express that F Factor has changed their lives. Some even proudly sport the same sweatshirt Zuckerbrot is often seen wearing on her Instagram page, Champion brand quality with the word “Fiber” in green letters. Zuckerbrot is also a fan of using Granny Smith hued hearts in her Instagram posts and comments.

Gellis, in addition to being a fashion influencer, a brand ambassador for the skin serum she helped develop Poppy, and founder of the Emily Cho bag line (a company she sold in 2018), had shared her own weight loss journey in the past. That fact and her undeniable outspokenness and gumption seemed to be the most plausible explanations for why she was the one receiving the myriad of gripes from F Factor dieters. Many expressed to her via direct messages, and in live sessions she held on Instagram, that the company had not properly responded to their complaints. They said that was why they were making Gellis aware, hoping she would alert her following. They stated that their immediate goal was to obtain answers from the company. The messages had begun to really pour in, Gellis explained on Juicy Scoop, at the start of summer 2020.

Ailments relayed to Gellis included a range of gastrointestinal distress (one woman reportedly had been hospitalized and had a portion of her colon removed. Gellis says they spoke in person before she received the bulks of the messages). Others told Gellis about hive-like rashes and included photos as evidence, which Gellis posted along with each complainant’s accompanying message. Cessation of menses was another of the symptoms relayed to Gellis via Instagram direct messages. Emily Gellis began connecting with many of these people by phone and holding Instagram live sessions with them for followers to watch. This was in addition to her activity of sharing direct messages. The Instagram Lives began opening the floor for followers to submit their own questions about the diet.

Tanya Zuckerbrot was given the opportunity to address the claims, but for several weeks, she stayed mostly mum. This type of silence irked former F Factor dieters who wanted a response from her. Others saw it as taking the high road by not engaging with Gellis. When Zuckerbrot did eventually address her following, she spoke of emotional trauma, people out to get her, and referred to Gellis as “a blogger,” and “a girl who sells clothes.”

However, Gellis had by then morphed from a fashion influencer to an unofficial advocate detailing the perils of diet culture. As a result, more individuals — previously ashamed and somewhat in hiding (Zuckerbrot comes across as influential and is wealthy, so young women have expressed their intimidation with regard to approaching her. Others alleged they were previously dismissed.) — reached out to Gellis regarding their own negative experiences with F Factor…and, in a few cases, with Zuckerbrot herself.

When Zuckerbrot eventually further acknowledge the backlash, she defended her diet, presented a certificate of ingredients for the powders, declared the diet safe, and eventually claimed that a group of women with a personal vendetta were out to ruin her business. She made one follower cry during an Instagram live session by saying “you haven’t read my book!” The follower actually had read the diet book (and later completely forgave Zuckerbrot and made amends with her). Many of Zuckerbrot’s Instagram Live participants were shaken that day by how the young woman was addressed.

While Gellis continued to hold IG Lives with former F Factor dieticians, clients and employees, who conveyed they had found the diet to be suspect, other types of allegations began to surface about Zuckerbrot as a boss. Gellis shared those reports (with posts of the DMs and with more IG Live interviews) about harsh and improper working conditions. The allegations included: pressure to remain thin, embarrassing in-office weigh-ins, and even sexually inappropriate comments and suggestions. It is crucial to reiterate that at this stage, these are allegations. Nevertheless, it is equally important to acknowledge that multiple women came forward on the record. Aside from those who appeared in live sessions with Gellis, others spoke up on multiple diet-focused podcasts and with The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/24/style/f-factor-diet-instagram.html).

Initially, Gellis was embraced by F Factor critics and then branched out to calling out other diets and was met with fierce backlash. Followers thought she was doing too much. The focus did not just stay on diets, however. Soon, she was discussing sexual harassment and sexual improprieties among exercise instructors (i.e. She posted messages from followers about a popular exercise instructor) among other problematic people and programs in the diet/exercise arena. A slew of former fans turned into detractors, declaring that “Emily Gellis needed to stay in her lane,” or “Stick with the F Factor story.”

Reddit forums were born and heated: Often, hateful and acrimonious discussions about Gellis ensued on that platform. Quite often, they veered from the controversy that started it all, the safety of a diet, and escalated into critiques of Gellis’s apartment aesthetics or how she masticated her food.

As Gellis had morphed into Instagram’s “call-out queen,” who some saw as an advocate, and others saw as an outlandish rabble-rouser, she was encompassing a lot more than nutrition. She posted a picture of a bride at a wedding in the midst of Covid and proceeded to declare that large weddings should not be taking place, nor should travel in the midst of a global pandemic.

Followers found that problematic as Gellis herself had taken a trip (while assuring followers of the Covid precautions in place and listing the steps she took to make traveling safe). A few months earlier, she had attended an outdoor Shabbat dinner that didn’t showcase adequate social distancing according to some viewers.

“I realize they were all seated outside,” one follower said about that autumn dinner, “Still, in the Instagram videos, they appeared to be on top of one another…without wearing masks because you have to take them off to eat. I just thought they weren’t being mindful about distancing, and now that Emily preaches about taking precautions, it seemed to onlookers as “hypocritical” in retrospect.

Because some of the pictures Gellis shared on her Instagram were of Jewish weddings, followers called Gellis (herself Jewish) “antisemitic” or a “self-hating Jew.” However, as she frequently emphasized, she had shared many other pictures of people from other cultures, backgrounds, religions and walks of life who were acting cavalier about Covid. She further stated that this had nothing to do with any one religion or particular group, but with ALL who decided not to abide by governmental health guidelines.

Recently, Gellis (now pregnant) took on more of a public vigilance regarding Covid safety. She has become a polarizing figure, sparring with many, including the influencer/reporter and podcast host (Pot Psychology”) Tracie Egan Morrissey. Morrissey asked for credit when Gellis shared an Instagram story of hers. Instead of agreeing to make a quick fix with attribution, Gellis became combative towards Morrissey. She then blamed Morrissey for posting her phone number online, information that Morrissey did not even possess. Gellis later acknowledged that Morrissey was innocent. Morrissey would go on to divulge to her own Instagram following that she had never received an apology from Gellis for the unfounded accusation.

As time went on, Gellis went on several other crusades and launched other tirades that were met with mixed reviews. Many had no issue with her decrying those who did not exhibit regard for the health and safety of elders or the compromised during the pandemic. They also empathized with Gellis having a mother who is severely compromised. Others were extremely irate with Gellis for the call outs. There are several hate pages devoted to the topic of Emily Gellis across the Instagram platform.

Influencers like “Lianawhoo” (Instagram screen name) who post regular gripes about having to mask up, and claim the pandemic’s severity is hyped by mainstream media, were spotlighted by Gellis. In the minds of many, this was justified, while others felt compassion towards the Covid recalcitrant. Incidentally, weeks after Lianawhoo’s “my body, my choice” rant about being forced to wear a mask, she came down with Covid and was briefly hospitalized. She has since recovered and has not retracted her earlier public statements or changed her stance.

But getting back to the F Factor diet and feud between Tanya Zuckerbrot and Emily Gellis, while Gellis has lost fans due to her “take no prisoners” approach, impulsivity and brashness, Zuckerbrot has been criticized for not swiftly and effectively responding to allegations when they first surfaced, or showing proper compassion to those who reported ailments.

Questions about the safety of the F Factor diet still remain. The answer, very likely, according to other nutritionists who have weighed in, is that the diet is good for some and not for others. Different bodies have different tolerances. Some people have specific food sensitivities and allergies. Some can do a high fiber diet easily, while others have to ease into it very slowly. A major part of this story includes the failings of not having a proper PR protocol in place for a major diet company, and in particular, for its founder. A lot of people are upset that it took Tanya Zuckerbrot “so long” (in their estimations) to respond.

Among the allegations of a toxic work environment under Zuckerbrot, former employees told Gellis that she had made remarks about offering them up to successful businessmen for sexual favors. What irks so many is that the RD blamed those who complained, or who handled others’ complaints. She used one woman’s controversial background (a woman who served time for mail fraud) against that woman, repeatedly bringing it up when asked why they had a falling out. Essentially, Zuckerbrot’s approach of blaming others and dodging the specifics of serious questions remains a a quandary to former F Factor adherents and ex Zuckerbrot devotees, one they have vocalized on their platforms and on Gellis’s.

Gellis, for her part, seems to have a lot of drama surrounding her. There is another woman, whose involvement in this story began when complaints first were shared by Gellis. This woman, a social justice activist who has owned and founded boutiques, once stated on her Instragram (amidst the contentious campaign directly leading up to the 2020 election) that Gellis’s campaign reflects “white privilege” at a time when the focus should be on larger, more crucial national issues. This woman has reported negative things about Gellis’s character, but Gellis claims to have had limited interactions with her before the current F Factor debacle escalated.

This past summer, Brettschneider anonymously messaged Gellis about having a miscarriage after using F Factor products. She later explained to the New York Times reporter who featured Gellis, that she had sent a fabricated account to prove a point: Anyone can share complaints received by Direct Message and subsequently be believed, that messages are not verified and validated as proof of experience.

There is a lot more to this story, believe it or not. At the end of the day, the major concerns about F Factor are as follows: Are the PRODUCTS (powders and bars) safe, and is there a limit to how much fiber a body can handle? If, as most (including RDs) suspect, the products (and diet) are safe for some and not for others, this needs to be a regimen people are tested for before starting.

The other question critics have: Why are several stick-thin women, who look like candidates for amenorrhea therapies, the “influencers” promoting this diet? Watching these women rave about powder for pancakes and waffles has been jarring for some, they have repeatedly expressed. These critics have asked “Can we see more muscular and toned women as brand ambassadors?”

One could argue that F Factor is a lifestyle rather than a weight loss diet, but the waif-like appearances of the aforementioned influencers, and their obsession with substituting Gigi Crackers for bread, conjures up a time when teen girls began voluntarily vomiting after watching a popular 90s TV movie about bulimia. If this is indeed a “lifestyle” and a prolonged way of eating, is it truly safe, many wonder. Are people who need to maintain – but not lose – weight getting the proper amount of calories and the appropriate mix of nutrients for optimal health?

Last month, Tanya Zuckerbrot sued Emily Gellis for defamation. She claims that Gellis’s reposts of direct messages and further commentary on the diet has adversely affected her business financially, as well as her personal and emotional well-being. She says she personally has received very few complaints about her diet, and questions the authenticity of the messages Gellis posted. As for the numerous people who have spoken on the record to Gellis, Zuckerbrot sees the majority as disgruntled exceptions to those offering very positive feedback.

This has the makings of a precedent-setting court case should it go beyond a settlement. The biggest question for future similar cases would be: Can “social media influencers” be restricted from re-posting direct messages, if doing so can damage a business? Where is the line drawn between sharing feedback and slander? Do direct messages need to be thoroughly and indisputably verified before an influencer shares them on a public social media platform?

The latest unexpected, tangential twist to this story is that on Wednesday December 16th, North Shore Hebrew Academy (of Great Neck, Long Island) had a hacking of their website. Anti Semitic, Nazi-like sentiments were written. The faculty, parents and students are gravely concerned and law enforcement is involved and investigating. While it is strongly believed that a Neo Nazi or similar type of antisemitic hate group hacked the site, that hasn’t stopped people from blaming Emily Gellis for the incident.

Gellis has actually used her platform to highlight antisemitism periodically and speak out against it. Nevertheless, she has received threats since the school’s website hacking. Her harshest critics contend that by sharing pictures of crowded parties and weddings — among those Jewish crowded events — and spotlighting super spreader events, Gellis incited wrath upon the Jewish community.

Tanya Zuckerbrot has not publicly condemned the overboard animosity and threats made towards Emily Gellis. She is back to focusing on promoting F Factor and moving forward with the lawsuit.

While this all began with a diet under scrutiny, it has morphed into so much more. At a time when some are struggling to put food on their tables during a pandemic, others are willing to pay for exorbitantly pricey food plans. While many are worried about incomes and paying their bills on time, some of those same individuals are avidly scrolling Instagram to see who Emily Gellis will call out today…or tomorrow…

Then there are those still curious about the initial main story, wanting to know the hard facts about F Factor. Zuckerbrot shared in her lawsuit that she’s felt incredibly harassed and attacked by Gellis, and Gellis, for her part, contends that Zuckerbrot’s team has harassed her (she was particularly upset that Zuckerbrot’s lawyers published her home address in public documents).

Neither of these two women will be meeting for a plate of Gigi Crackers and a toast of champagne (alcohol is allowed on F Factor!) any time soon – socially distanced or otherwise.

This story is far from over and Instagram users — whether they like, love, tolerate or rabidly detest Emily Gellis — are still tuning in for their daily dose of her riveting Instagram stories. This has turned into a quarantine-time reality soap opera. Followers are eager to see how the plot unfolds.

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